Capstone College and Career Advising

Guide to Life: How to Get the most from a college visit

May 11th, 2015 by

Good planning allow families to take schools for spin before big decision

By Collin BinkleyThe Columbus Dispatch  •  Saturday April 25, 2015 11:13 AM

Too often, Jeff Kallay hears about families who head into college visits unprepared.

They ask easy questions whose answers are readily found on school websites.

Is there an engineering program here? How big is the student population?

“I think people are overwhelmed by the college search process and all the misinformation and information online,” said Kallay, CEO of Render Experience — an Atlanta company that consults with colleges nationwide to help improve their campus tours.

“Ten minutes on the website is going to fill you in on stats and information, and then that way, I think, you’re better-prepared to listen to the stories the tour guides are telling.”

With proper planning, Kallay and other experts say, families can turn college visits into a key tool for making a smart decision. Once students have a list of possible schools, such visits can help them separate the top contenders and determine where they would feel most at home.

“You have to see yourself as a fit in that school, and you have to be unapologetic about talking about that fit in every interaction on that campus,” said Rob Franek, the chief expert on colleges at the Princeton Review, a national company that offers advice on college admissions.

Timing, experts say, is important with college visits. A family that starts such visits during a student’s junior year of high school have plenty of time to complete and mail applications, and make a choice.

Still, some experts advocate starting sooner.

Sarah Collins tells her students at Lancaster schools who are taking vacations during their freshman year to check out any colleges near their destinations.

“I think it’s never too early to start,” said Collins, president of the Ohio School Counselor Association.

Much of the timing question depends on the college type.

For highly selective schools, students need to know by the start of their senior year where they’re applying, said Ross Grippi, president of the Ohio Association for College Admission Counseling.

For colleges that admit students on a rolling basis, meaning they have a large application window and respond to applications as they come in, visits can start the summer before senior year and continue into the fall, he said.

And experts recommend a second visit to a student’s top schools. Visiting when classes are in session gives a flavor of the academic life of the campus; and, for some prospective students, a visit during cooler weather can be a deciding factor.

“A first visit over the summer is great,” Collins said, “but you should certainly visit the college when classes are in full swing.”

Many colleges offer daylong events for visitors — from informational sessions to walking tours — that can prove helpful, experts say. And some schools even track student visitors and consider such visits in their admission decisions. Many experts said that, if they could offer just one piece of advice, they would encourage high schoolers to talk to as many students as possible while on campus.

“They’ll be able to comment about what the academic experience is,” Franek said. “You have to be fearless about engaging as many students as possible.”

One effective way to do that, Kallay said, is to stray a bit from the official tour.

“Go off the grid and go into the student center or go into an academic building of a major you’re interested in and chat up a student — a ‘non-ambassador’ student,” said Kallay, adding that families should also visit areas beyond campus.

“Take time to see the town; that’s the thing that most families miss. That’s going to be a large part of your student experience.”

Families of students who know the major they plan to pursue, Collins said, should call ahead to schedule a meeting with a representative of that department.

“Do your homework ahead of time so that you can have a conversation about it,” said Collins, who also tells students to read online what the school says about the major.

Among the questions that experts suggest asking: What percentage of students who declare the major stick with it? Are graduates finding jobs — and, if so, where? What types of internship opportunities are open to students? What is the average class size? What advising do students receive?

And, yes, families should talk about money.

“Nobody likes to talk about funding in a very direct way,” said Franek of the Princeton Review. “But this question of affordability is absolutely going to come up again and again.”

He recommends that a family call ahead to schedule a visit with the financial-aid office. That early in the search process, many schools don’t give a personalized analysis of college costs, but representatives can provide averages.

And Franek suggests asking for the numbers that aren’t in the brochure: the percentage of graduates who leave with debt, for example, and the average size of that debt.

Wherever you are on a campus, experts say, ask questions.

Getting swept along through group tours is easy, experts say, and some students might feel embarrassed when their parents pepper guides with questions. But that is one of the most important values of a visit, they say.

“There’s never a question that’s not important,” Grippi said. “If it’s important to you, it’s probably important to someone else in the group.”

Lunchtime during a college visit should be spent at the college, the experts say.

“I would eat on campus; this is so important,” Franek said.

Also, he added, check out the many other aspects of daily life that the college tour might not address — such as visiting a dormitory.

Collins encourages a family to set aside time to walk from one end of campus to the other — so a student knows before selecting a college how long such a trek takes.

After a few visits, the campuses might start to blend together — so Kallay suggests taking photos to help with the final decision.

“Everyone takes photos of everything else in their life and documents it, yet they don’t document their tours,” he said. “You need to take photos of the things that matter.”

For families that don’t have the budget to travel, options are available.

Some colleges offer programs to help visitors pay such costs. Many will set up alumni interviews with prospective students who want to talk about the college. Even following a school on social media, Franek said, can help families learn about its students, culture and academics.

The goal of visits, though, is to help a student pick a college. Ultimately, the decision comes down to a mix of financial factors, academics and a school’s culture (specifically, whether a student fits in there).

The choice, then, can require introspection, Kallay said — concerning where a student might excel best.

“It’s a gut check,” Kallay said. “You’ve got to do a little self-inventory: What do you want out of college, and where will you thrive?”

A checklist

The College Board, a nonprofit organization that promotes excellence and equity in education, offers suggestions for making the most of college visits. Its checklist (adapted from the book Campus Visits and College Interviews):

Ask questions: Some questions you might ask a tour guide or students